They’re Not Rin-Tin-Tin: debunking the guide dog myth
By Ann Chiappetta
I’m a first-time dog guide handler, and, as such, I haven’t attained the broken-in status of the seasoned handlers, who can somehow avoid impromptu conversations about their dogs while in public. Truth be told, I envy handlers who have attained the ability to go unnoticed. For some reason, I’m not one of them, and most likely will never attain the quiet dignity they’ve acquired when working their dogs.
I’ve concluded that my role is that of the informant, the guide dog ambassador. For now, at least, it suits me and my dog, as we’re both social creatures, thriving on interactions with both humans and canines.
There are, of course, inaccuracies and mis-information not just about blind people but also guide dog users and their dogs. I refer to the unrealistic assumptions of the un-indoctrinated general public as the Rin-Tin-Tin Myth, reflecting the fictional, super dog named in the 1950s adventure series. For those who do remember the show, is it any wonder the first successful guide dog team was comprised of a blinded Veteran and a German Sheppard dog? Aside from the coincident, for many years the German Sheppard Dog was the poster dog for the blind. The introduction of other working breeds, such as the now popular Labrador retriever, has both helped and hindered handlers. For the most part, Shepards look intense and dignified. They are ever watchful, work hard, and can be protective. On the other paw, Labradors are better able to relax, cop a snooze, and love anyone with food. Both breeds are great guides due to their work drive and desire to please their handler. Let’s not forget the many other breeds of dogs that are also successfully trained for guide work. Golden Retrievers, Dobermans, Collies, and Boxers are only a few I’ve met that are part of a successful working team.
Keeping all this in mind, I do my best to debunk the mythology of working a guide dog. Sure, breeds differ in some respects, and I don’t just refer to the physical differences. For example, most Labradors can be easily trained with food rewards whereas many a Shepard cannot be convinced with even the most enticing treat. Does it mean one is better than the other? No. Fortuneately, Training methods have evolved with us and our dogs, making it much easier to train both breeds effectively.
I think the general public needs to know what’s appropriate and what isn’t if and when one should come into contact with a working team. So far, I’ve had some strange interactions, like a baby in a carriage pulling my dog’s tail. When I turned to ask what was going on, the adult acted like I wasn’t even there. Once I crossed the street, a Good Samaritan caught up to me and told me what happened. I laughed and thanked him. My dog was tested that time, that’s for sure. She passed with flying colors.
I don’t, of course, have to take the time to educate folks; many handlers choose not to engage in these conversations because it becomes repetitive and burdensome when you just want to go about your business. There are times, however, when a comment from someone is so off-base, I am compelled to take on the role of guide dog debunker.
The most amusing questions are:
1. How does your dog know how to cross the street? I thought dogs were color blind.
This one always makes me laugh; I tell them I have to know when it’s safe and give my dog the command to go with the traffic flow. If a car blocks our path or puts us in danger, my dog will act accordingly and get us out of harms’ way.
The second most frequent comment:
2. Is he/she training?
I always answer, she’s working now, and her training is over.
The third most frequently asked question:
3. Can I pet your dog?
My reply: Please don’t pet her, she’s working. Thanks for asking first.
The next one:
How do you get a guide dog? I want to say, “You got to be blind, you dummy”, but I just smile and say there are at least ten training schools in the United States and Canada and they can all be found via the Internet.
So, going out in public really puts my people skills to the test, just as it puts Verona’s guiding skills to the test. But it’s certainly better than sitting at home.
Incidentally, Verona will be three years old on 11/24. Our one year anniversary is on January 5, 2010. Writing about our trips illustrates how much my life has changed and has been enriched since meeting and training with her. I have a better sense of belonging, a feeling of freedom I never thought I could ever regain after losing my sight.
Due to the intense on-campus training I underwent at guiding Eyes for the Blind, I’ve found other folks who live like me, and that is comforting whenever I feel overwhelmed by my disability. I am part of another family who will follow and support me as long as I am part of a guide dog team and willing to take part in the mission to stay active, independent, and live life to the fullest.
Some folks have asked me what other roles my new dog assumes when she isn’t working. My dog helps me gain control of my life. She quells the anxiety I often feel when traveling to unfamiliar places by guiding me and keeping me safe. She is my constant companion, sharing my life at home, work, and vacation. That alone is worth taking the time out to help someone else understand what it’s like to work with a guide dog.